10 Great American Artisanal Cheeses to Eat Now

by Kerry Acker

There's never been a better time to be a cheese lover in the United States. A 2012 survey from the American Cheese Society estimates that there are more than 900 artisan, farmstead, and specialty cheesemakers toiling away across the country, crafting world-class cow, goat, sheep--and even buffalo--milk cheeses that more than hold their own against Europe's finest wheels. Because we count the search for and consumption of fantastic cheese among life's greatest pleasures--and because we're pretty sure many of you do, too--we asked five top cheesemongers and cheese pros from different pockets of the country to each recommend two American artisanal cheeses they are particularly excited about right now. Here are their picks, in all their grassy, milky, stinky, moussy, nutty, mushroomy glory...

*Bryan Bland, cheesemonger at Chicago's Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine:

--Driftless: Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby, WI
(fresh, soft; pasteurized sheep milk)

"I love Driftless right now because of its brightness and versatility. Think of it like ricotta with more flavor, thanks to the sheep's milk, and use it in place of ricotta in pasta dishes or even spread it on a bagel with some honey. It pairs beautifully with summertime beverages: Sünner Kölsch, Alva, and Elk Cove Pinot Noir Rose."

--Little Bloom on the Prairie: Prairie Fruits Farm, Champaign, IL
(bloomy rind, soft; pasteurized goat milk)

"The Little Bloom is a great example of the creativity in the American artisan cheese market, a goat milk Camembert! There are the traditional savory flavors of mushroom and roasted garlic but added to that is citrus and sweet grass notes from the goat's milk, which makes for a very unique cheese. I love white wines with the Little Bloom, a great sparkling like the L. Mawby Blanc de Blancs or Schloss Lieser Riesling with a touch of sweetness for a great dessert pairing."

*Noreen Guizar, cheesemonger at Portland, Oregon's Cheese Bar:

--Hannah: Ancient Heritage Dairy, Madras, OR
(natural rind, semi-firm; raw cow and sheep milk)

"Being new to the Pacific Northwest, I have chosen local cheeses that have struck a chord with me. Ancient Heritage Dairy is the first local cheesemaker that really cemented itself on my mongering radar. Their Hannah is a perfectly balanced cow/sheep blend with a nutty yet creamy texture. Sweet and tart, Hannah is an easy-to-enjoy cheese with excellent pairing qualities."

--Island Brebis: Glendale Shepherd, Whidbey Island, WA
(tomme, semi-firm; raw sheep milk)

"Coming from Whidbey Island, a small island off the Washington Coast, this raw sheep's milk cheese has grassy notes with an almost coconut-like finish. The fantastically granular texture gives this cheese an excellent mouth feel. That same mouth feel pairs perfectly with the hoppy IPAs of the Northwest."

*Matt Jennings, chef/co-owner/cheesemonger at Providence's Farmstead, Inc.:

--Melville: Mystic Cheese Company, Lebanon, CT
(fresh, soft-ripened; currently made with pasteurized goat's milk, has been made with cow's milk in the past)

"Melville is a relative newcomer to the cheese scene, the creation of cheese veteran Brian Civitello and Jason Sobicinski of Caseus. We're currently the only shop in Rhode Island to carry it. It is a young fresh style of cheese that is full of nuance and flavor. It captures the best aspects of spreadable creamy cheeses like neufchâtel but with balanced levels of salt, nuttiness, and acidity. It's not a one-hit wonder at all as it melts like a dream. We use it in a couple of our dishes at our restaurants as well. When we put it on cheese boards we can't keep it in the shop because it flies out the doors so quickly. Definitely one to try if you can get your hands on it."

--Moses Sleeper: Cellars at Jasper Hill, Greensboro, VT
(bloomy rind, soft; pasteurized cow milk)

"American Coulommier or American Brie? It falls somewhere in the middle. The Cellars at Jasper Hill are well known amongst the cheese trade and there's little wonder why. They've made amazing cheese for years, helped develop amazing chese for years, aged amazing cheese for years, and this relatively simple bloomy-rinded beauty is prime evidence of all those talents. Creamy, mushroomy, buttery paste like you can find in Coulommier but a delicate, savory delicious rind like you'll find on the best Bries. The best batches are starting to hit the shelves now. It's relatively easy to find from coast to coast."

*Brian Ralph, cave manager at New York's Murray's Cheese:

--Barden Blue: Consider Bardwell Farm, West Pawlet, VT
(blue, firm; raw cow milk)

"When we first talked with Consider Bardwell Farm about working with us on a new blue cheese, our excitement rumbled. The first tasting of Barden Blue gave us even more to fuss about: beautiful buttery roundness of the paste enriched with traces of mineral, grass, and seaweed flavors show off the superb quality of these cheesemakers. It's the perfect relationship: made by their cheesemaker and finished in the Murray's caves. Unlike any blue out there."

--Bonne Bouche: Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery, Websterville, VT
(bloomy rind, soft; pasteurized goat milk)

"Stepping into summer with a round of Bonne Bouche from the talented folks at Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery will never lead you astray. Lemon meringue from the supple white paste, hints of cocoa from the stormy gray rind, moussy in texture...this cheese simply melts in the mouth, leaving you to want more until the wrinkly round quickly disappears!"

*Ari Weinzweig, cofounding partner of Ann Arbor, Michigan's Zingerman's community of businesses, which includes a creamery and a cheese shop:

--Ziege Zacke Blue: LaClare Farms and Roelli Cheese Haus, Shullsberg, WI
(blue, firm; pasteurized cow and goat milk)

"One of the most interesting new cheeses to arrive this summer, Ziege Zacke Blue is made collaboratively by two of the country's most creative and talented cheesemakers: Katie Hedrich from LaClare Farms and Chris Roelli from Roelli Cheese. It's a blended cheese--goat milk from the Hedrich family herd blended with cow's milk at Roelli Cheese. Ziege Zacke has a rough, raggedy natural rind, earthy, big in-your-face flavor that actually mellows a bit in the mouth. It's the sort of cave-aged cheese I'm used to finding in the obscure villages of northern Italy or maybe far out in the English countryside. My personal preference is to eat it as is with a good loaf of bread and a bit of cultured butter."

--Bent River: Alemar Cheese Company, Mankato, MN
(bloomy rind, soft; pasteurized cow milk)

"I've had so many kinds of so-so versions of camembert over the years. Few have really caught my attention, but this year Keith Adams' Bent River has made me a believer--it's impressively delicious! The cheese has a lot of the complexities and texture of traditional Normandy Camembert but with a bit of Minnesota magic in the mix. It's excellent at either end of the maturing spectrum--mellow, mushroomy, milky, buttery, and subtle when it's young; more out front and forward as it ages."

See more from Epicurious:
Cheese and Wine Pairings
Know Your Mexican Cheeses
Kids in the Kitchen